The view east from Lantau Island to Peng Chau, Kau Yi Chau, and other smaller islands, with Hong Kong Island in the distance. Bobby Yip/Reuters

The ‘Lantau Tomorrow’ plan would expand small islands for much-needed new housing, but not without risks to the environment.  

Mui Wo is a sleepy town of 5,000 people on Lantau Island, lying on a sloping plane between the sea and mountains. It draws visitors to its many cafés and restaurants, a beach, and scenic hiking trails that wrap around the coastline with views of nearby islands.

Although Lantau is Hong Kong’s largest island, Mui Wo has a distinctively offbeat vibe compared to the rest of the city, with neighborhood dogs relaxing on the sidewalk and the pervasive calm typical of coastal tourist towns. It’s a community that could almost be in semi-rural Hawaii, dotted with abandoned farms and tropical vegetation as well as overgrown Chinese graves and low-rise apartment buildings.

This atmosphere, however, is set to change in 2025 if Hong Kong’s government moves forward with one of its largest engineering projects yet. The Mui Wo cafés that once provided a sweeping view of the sea will soon have an unencumbered view of construction—and then, if all goes to plan, of high-rise towers.

Under the ambitious “Lantau Tomorrow” plan, Hong Kong will first build a roughly 2,500-acre island—roughly the size of 1,000 football fields—around the uninhabited Kau Yi Chau Island to the northeast of Lantau. This may be followed by an additional 1,700 additional acres of land reclamation around the island Hei Ling Chau, which is roughly two miles from Mui Wo and visible from its shoreline.

(David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

Hong Kong’s government says Lantau Tomorrow will solve a crisis: the city’s lack of affordable housing and developable land. The waiting time for public housing in Hong Kong in 2018 was five years and three months, according to the South China Morning Post; the average Hong Konger has to wait 25 years to be able to afford an apartment in the world’s most expensive real-estate market. The cost of living and inequality are causes of discontent, and indirect factors behind the huge protests that have taken place in Hong Kong this summer.

Reclamation around Kau Yi Chau during the first phase of Lantau Tomorrow is expected to provide between 150,000 and 260,000 housing units, 70 percent of which are earmarked for public housing, according to Hong Kong’s Civil Engineering and Development Department. Most of this will likely take the form of the massive tower blocks found elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Cable cars pass an apartment tower on Lantau Island. Land reclamation during the first phase of Lantau Tomorrow is expected to provide between 150,000 and 260,000 housing units nearby. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

The first phase of Lantau Tomorrow is expected to be built by around 2032. Assuming the whole project is completed on time (which would possibly be a first for Hong Kong), the new island will open to residents in 2043.

Red-tide fears

Residents and activists are concerned, however, that this solution may place too high a toll on the local and marine environment around Mui Wo and Kau Yi Chau. 

“The project will have reclaimed land very close to the shore of south Lantau and Mui Wo. The narrowing of the passageway to the open sea will create an almost enclosed environment, where water-current movement will be greatly reduced, and oxygen contents of the water slowly depleted,” said Mui Wo resident Tom Yam, who is campaigning against the project. Yam fears that the changes in Mui Wo’s bay will allow algae to take over, creating a red tide and later a dead sea around the idyllic waterfront community.

The first thing to consider when building an island, says Will Glamore, a professor and principal research fellow at the University of New South Wales’s Water Research Laboratory, is how it will affect the flow of water nearby.

“If you’re making islands, you’re making the channels around the islands smaller,” he said. “That means water goes faster. We’ve got to make sure any islands won’t be obstructing any flow paths that are useful for pollutants or fish-breeding grounds or bird areas, or fish themselves.”

Once a possible location is found, the construction process can be broken down into two phases: building a sea wall and then backfilling it with a lot of sediment. But the sediment could get washed away by typhoons or lost in the construction process if the proper precautions are not taken.

“These are big engineering projects, and they require a lot of pre-planning, so you have to figure out where to get that sediment from,” said Glamore, who has worked on island-building projects in the past. “Does it come from a dredging area nearby? Is it being shipped in with sand from somewhere else? Whatever that may be, this is big-scale engineering. The challenges are not to be lightly taken.”

Hong Kong’s Civil Engineering Department says the island can be filled with 15 million tons of its own construction debris, while Yam calculates that it will take around 200 million tons of sand to build the first island alone.

The devil is in the details, according to Glamore, since small changes to the environment can have a huge impact elsewhere. Introducing a new land mass, for example, could change the way the wind blows across the water in a Lantau channel, which in turn affects how pollution and effluent move around Hong Kong. If executed poorly, the project could create the kinds of red tides that worried Mui Wo resident Tom Yam. It’s the “bigger second-order, third-order impacts that you have to be concerned about,” said Glamore.

Making new land out of the water

Hong Kong is no stranger to the land-reclamation process. It used it to build the airport and around 6 percent of its current land area. Land reclamation is popular in other parts of Asia as well, thanks to the region’s relatively shallow waters and dense cities.

The island-building crown goes to China, which has aggressively built up reefs and atolls in the South China Sea to expand its naval and military reach, much to the chagrin of its neighbors and the United States.

Singapore has engaged in aggressive reclamation projects, expanding its territory by 25 percent with artificial land, according to government figures, while Malaysia is currently in the midst of reclaiming islands off the coast of Penang. 

Chee Su Yin, a senior lecturer at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies in Penang, said Malaysia’s projects have had a number of unintended consequences. Sand transported from another Malaysian state has left a “trail of destruction behind” by adding sediment to the nearby seabed. Chee said the sand has had a damaging effect on local phytoplankton and marine plants by interrupting their ability to perform photosynthesis.

One reason why island-building is so common in Asia is that local governments require less environmental impact assessment than in Australia, North America, or western Europe.

As Hong Kong embarks on a 42-month feasibility study for Lantau Tomorrow, it has yet to conduct its full environmental assessment, but says that it will look at factors ranging from noise pollution to ecology. According to the Civil Engineering Department, Kau Yi Chau Island was chosen in part because of the “relatively low ecological sensitivity in the area.” The government has not specified where it will source the sand for the project (beyond its construction debris). Most likely it will come from nearby quarrying or sand dredgingwhich can have a significant environmental impact on local communities.

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